Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Libertarianism and the Wilderness

It occurred to me recently that the best metaphor for describing the libertarian conception of liberty, the rights of the individual, and all of the thinking underlying libertarian positions on both social and economic issues is the concept of the wilderness or the frontier.

This concept is a defining archetype of American history, and libertarianism is a quintessentially American political philosophy (which is not to say that most Americans believe in it -- not the same thing), so it should not be surprising that the two should go together. For much of American history up until the late 19th century, the perceived reality of life in the United States included a lot of land that belonged to nobody. (Well -- nobody except Indians. Which in the thinking of Americans at that time pretty much meant nobody. The Indians might object if you tried to claim that unclaimed land, sometimes violently, but that was just part of the risk.) There was "back east," where most of the land was settled and belonged to someone, and then there was "out west," where most of the land was unclaimed. You built a homestead, there were somewhat fuzzy boundary lines around what was yours, then there was wilderness, unclaimed land, and then you came to someone else's homestead with its own fuzzy boundary lines. Cross over into someone else's land and try to make off with their cattle or sheep or pigs or whatever, and you were committing a crime, but you could leave your own property, wander into the wilderness that nobody had title to, and be free as a bird, able to make use of whatever the Indians wouldn't shoot you for using.

Now think of land ownership as a metaphor for rights in general. The old saying, "Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins," is agreed to by just about everyone, and that includes libertarians. But in the libertarian conception, we're not very close together, and so the chance of my swinging fist contacting your nose is pretty slim. They agree that it's possible and that's what the law is for (libertarians by definition aren't anarchists), but you have to go pretty seriously out of your way to interfere with someone else's rights. Unless you're the government. The government, in the libertarian conception, exists to protect people's rights, but in reality the government is the main thing that tramples on people's rights and that describes most of its activity except on the rare occasions when someone does in fact go out of his way to be a pain, such as a burglar breaking into your house.

The libertarian conception of rights can be depicted visually like this:
Rights, in this way of thinking, are like homesteads in the wilderness. There's your rights and my rights, and a lot of open space in between that represents nobody's rights. You can do pretty much whatever you want, as long as you don't cross over into that little space that defines "my rights" or "his rights."

Contrasting the archetype of the wilderness is what was happening "back east," or in Europe or other civilized places. (Or sissified places, depending on your point of view.) In that conception, there was no wilderness. Everything belonged to someone or other, so as soon as you go off your own land you are either in public space (which has its own rules of behavior) or you are on someone else's territory and quite possibly trespassing. That lends itself to a conception of rights, too, in which any action you take bumps into someone else, and a ruling is required (either legal or informal) as to whether you have a right to do that in the particular case. Here's a visual conception of that:
Here, if you step outside your own rights you are automatically infringing on the rights of someone else. There is no open, unclaimed territory. Rights become a matter of dividing up freedom of action (or property, as the case may be). If the right to do something isn't mine, that means it's yours, or his, or hers, or theirs, or anyway it's somebody's.

One of the purposes of government is to mediate disputes among citizens. That's why we have civil law; in severe cases, it's also why we have criminal law. Obviously, a lot more government will be needed when the reality of rights is similar to the second illustration than it will if it resembles the first.


  1. Not quite understanding the 2nd illustration, in reality there's no place that has no "wilderness" at all, in the context of rights. There might be some places where the size and scope of a person's rights vary, but even totalitarian states have the black market and other avenues of enterprise.

    When it comes to defining the 2 opposing libertarian viewpoints, I think it comes down to the right leaning libertarians who believe the gov't has no right to interfere with an individual's right to further his/her own ends, and the left-leaning libertarians who think the gov't has a duty to interfere to protect the rights of the community and posterity. Both sides believe in the inherent right for a person to pursue his goals, and both sides decry the intrusion of gov't beyond what is necessary. It's just a question of how much is necessary and how far the person's rights can be extended.

  2. "Wilderness" in the sense I'm using that metaphor doesn't mean areas where the government's power doesn't reach. It means areas where one is free to act any way one pleases without violating anyone else's rights. It's a moral concept rather than a practical/political one. The government (ideally) restricts freedom of action only to protect the rights of other people. Thus for example we are forbidden by law to own slaves, in order to protect the rights of other people not to be slaves.

    In a crowded society such as we have today, however, any action you take is going to impact someone else negatively. Any space you occupy, cannot be occupied by another. Any property you own, someone else does not. Any food you eat, someone else can't. If you're occupying a seat in a restaurant, that prevents anyone else from sitting there. And so on. All of these potential conflicts are resolved by saying which person has a right to do what he is doing -- occupy that space, own that property, eat that food, sit in that chair. If person A has the right, then person B is denied the right.

    The philosophy of libertarianism, and I believe this is true both of left-leaning and of right-leaning libertarianism, is predicated on the idea that only rarely do our actions infringe on the liberties of other people. In reality, unless we are living surrounded by wilderness that's not so; ALL of our actions infringe on the liberties (although not necessarily on the rights -- that's a judgment call) of other people.